An example of textual analysis

Exam questions for A and AS level usually either require an essay addressing a discursive question or they are passage-based. The latter are focused either on a section printed in the exam paper or, in open book exams, on a passage in your text to which you are referred. 

An example might be:


Read the opening of The Wife of Bath's Tale to l.881 ‘And he wol doon …'

Examine the significance of this passage in relation to The Wife of Bath's Tale as a whole.

As ever, the first task is to discern what the examiner is looking for in your answer. The key words and phrases here are: 

  • examine
  • significance
  • as a whole. 

The question as a whole invites you to examine or analyse:

  • The passage – e.g. its language, themes and narrative strategy
  • The ways in which the writing relates to wider aspects of the entire text. 

If you do some detailed analysis of the passage and relate the contents to other aspects of the whole tale, you will be giving a focused answer to the question.

A worked example

The passage


857 In th' olde dayes of the kyng arthour,
858 Of which that britons speken greet honour,
859 Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
860 The elf-queene, with hir joly compaignye,
861 Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede.
862 This was the olde opinion, as I rede;
863 I speke of manye hundred yeres ago.
864 But now kan no man se none elves mo,
865 For now the grete charitee and prayers
866 Of lymytours and othere hooly freres,
867 That serchen every lond and every streem,
868 As thikke as motes in the sonne-beem,
869 Blessynge halles, chambres, kichenes, boures,
870 Citees, burghes, castels, hye toures,
871 Thropes, bernes, shipnes, dayeryes --
872 This maketh that ther ben no fayeryes.
873 For ther as wont to walken was an elf,
874 Ther walketh now the lymytour hymself
875 In undermeles and in morwenynges,
876 And seyth his matyns and his hooly thynges
877 As he gooth in his lymytacioun.
878 Wommen may go now saufly up and doun.
879 In every bussh or under every tree
880 Ther is noon oother incubus but he,
881 And he ne wol doon hem but dishonour.

Looking at the above question, the following notes give you an idea of one way you could tackle it and gain good marks.

  1. Introduce your answer by placing the passage in its context within the text as a whole:
    • The Wife has delivered a very long Prologue (nearly 830 lines).  It has been a story in itself, the story of her marriages.  She has also delivered a sustained piece of ironically misdirected self-advertisement. Despite the ‘wo' of her marriages, she appears to use her prologue as much as an opportunity to launch herself into marriage again as an introduction to a tale.  First person pronouns have been used with high frequency
    • In the opening of The Tale the Wife's highly subjective first person narration gives way to the voice of third person story-telling.
  2. You could then analyse the language, theme and narrative strategy to identify ways in which the passage sets up narrative expectations about genre and the tale to come. For example:
    • The Wife carefully sets the tale in a time before the fourteenth century, in the ‘old days' of King Arthur (i.e. back to the fifth or sixth century). She uses the word ‘Britons' by which she means folk from the Breton area of northern France where Arthurian tales and fairy tales were popular
    • The setting and the easy flow of the early lines establish a relaxed story-telling mode. Listeners may feel that they are going to be entertained by a Romance (a courtly story in verse dealing with legends of knights and heroes and, possibly, a story about King Arthur)
    • The reference to the days when the land was filled with fairies prepares the reader for magical interventions later in the tale, e.g. from l.990 where the Knight sees the dancing women who vanish as he approaches, and from l.1250 which sees the magical transformation of the Old Woman.
  3. You could then comment on how the tone changes because of the two voices in the tale, disrupting expectations about the genre:
    • l. 862-3 the Wife begins to intervene in her own ‘voice', using the first person, ‘…as I rede', and ‘I speke of …'
    • Chaucer then moves her on to comment on the present ‘now can no man see'.  Chaucer makes us aware of the Wife's voice here. Some critics would regard this as a ‘customising ‘of the Wife's voice to the tale
    • The comparison between the past, a land of fairies and spirits, (notice the number of relevant words ‘elves', ‘fayerye', ‘elf-queen' ‘incubus') alerts us to the possibility of magical intervention at some stage in the tale, whilst the reference to the present and the present fourteenth century world of pervasive clerics echoes the Wife's anti-clericalism in her Prologue
    • Evidence that Chaucer is giving the Wife a stage for her own views is apparent as she proceeds.  You could define the meaning of ‘limitour' (a friar given license to beg within certain areas or limits) and then explore how the Wife uses the opening of the tale to launch an attack on ‘holy freres'. They seem less than holy in their dishonouring of women. Their saving grace, it seems, is that they are not capable of begetting devils with them like the ‘incubus'
    • By the end of this passage we are aware that, as a narrator, the Wife's voice will intervene in the voice of the tale, there will be diversions whilst she comments or inserts another story, i.e. the story of Midas and his ears. And it will not surprise us to find her weighing in with her own comments at the end.
  4. You could then examine how one of themes of the tale, the treatment of women by men, is announced in the opening.
    • The Wife details the popular haunts of fairies – in bushes and under trees and suggests the sexual improprieties of the friars.  You could relate this to Chaucer's portrait of the Friar in The General Prologue from l.208 where the Friar is described as having enabled many young women to marry at his own cost.  The implication may be that he has got them pregnant. The Wife's Tale turns out to be not about a gallant knight, but about a knight who rapes and dishonours a woman. In both the Wife's introductory lines and in her tale, a woman is dishonoured by the kind of man who might be expected to protect her.
  5. Comment on other aspects of Chaucer's technique in the handling of the passage which support some of the earlier points that you have made:
    • The Wife uses a vivid simile for the pervasive intrusion of the friars in modern (fourteenth century) life. They are as thick as ‘motes' (specks of dust) in a sunbeam. The phrase emphasises the Wife's anti-clericalism
    • The Wife speaks of the friars saying ‘Matyns' (morning prayers) just prior to her comment on their sexual behaviour.  She thus closely links the ideal of spiritual duty with the reality of their sinful behaviour. Again, the Wife's anti-clericalism is prominent.
  6. Ending these short pieces of analysis can be difficult. One way would be to pick out two of the words in the passage which you think resonate in ideas in the tale e.g. ‘honour' and ‘dishonour'. You could relate these to:
    • The dishonourable behaviour of the Knight
    • The Old Woman's claim in her definition of ‘gentilesse', that gentilesse (the courteous, honourable, behaviour proper to those of good birth) comes from the grace of God, not from noble birth.

You might conclude that the beginning of The Tale shows the Wife on form and on one of her favourite topics – men behaving badly.

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